Construction Companies Can Play a Crucial Role in Saving a Pacific Northwest Treasure

They can ensure a better future for all by doing their part to save the salmon
  • They can ensure a better future for all by doing their part to save the salmon

This article appears in print in the March 2020 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

It’s no secret that salmon runs throughout the Pacific Northwest are in grave danger. Climate change, dams and loss of habitat all combine to thin the numbers of fish that return to our rivers and streams. ¶ Salmon are integral to our lives in the Pacific Northwest, an important resource for how we eat, work and play. The salmon fishing industry is thought to generate 200,000 jobs and $14 billion in revenue for our state. As an indicator species, salmon tell us about the overall health of our waters. Recent news hasn’t been good, including the loss of this primary food source for our ailing southern resident orcas. Some 92% of their diet is salmon.

We all need to do what we can to protect salmon, and there is an important role for the construction industry to play. Salmon-Safe was originally founded in 2003 to protect runoff from agricultural industries like vineyards. As a reward to those who complied with its guidelines, Salmon-Safe began awarding certifications that could be used as accolades for market-driven conservation. Salmon-Safe is now working with nine of the largest contractors in Puget Sound to achieve zero sediment runoff at construction sites.

Contractors learn best-management practices to prevent contaminants from coming into contact with storm water, which degrades water quality. Plastic sheets cover barren soil, preventing erosion and helping direct storm water to sumps where it is collected, filtered and then discharged into the stormwater systems and combined sewer basins. Building sites often employ large tanks with baffle systems to filter out suspended sediments, ensuring that the water leaving a site is clean and clear. 

To minimize construction trucks shedding mud onto roads and into storm sewer drains, vehicles leaving a site are washed down over a bed of large rocks, keeping the sediment on-site. Finally, finishes that contain copper and zinc — toxic to salmon in high quantities — are minimized during design and procurement to ensure that contact with rainwater is either avoided or greatly reduced and treated.

Salmon are worth protecting for their intrinsic value, of course, but taking such measures to protect water quality also is good for business. Many of Seattle-based Sellen Construction’s customers, for example — such as developers and property owners like Vulcan, Seattle Children’s Hospital and Microsoft — place considerable importance on protecting the environment, including protecting salmon.

Sometimes implementing rigorous strategies for water quality can save projects money as well. While demolishing old apartments near Children’s Hospital in Northeast Seattle, Sellen came up with the idea of collecting the runoff from street sweeping in the basements of old buildings, which functioned as a de facto cistern. Sediment sank to the bottom and then the filtered water was pumped out and reused to suppress dust and to refill the street-sweeping trucks. A key outcome of this effort was, of course, water conservation.

What many builders and developers might not realize is that it’s actually not that hard to comply with Salmon-Safe guidelines. Washington state already has very stringent water-quality and storm-water standards. Regulations here are, along with the Chesapeake Bay area in Maryland and Virginia, the strictest in the country. With the bar already very high, cost implications for the construction industry are minimal in the effort to raise its game and meet the goals Salmon-Safe helps us set. Volunteering to meet Salmon-Safe guidelines keeps companies focused on the big picture and the need to protect our waterways.

It’s going to take forward-thinking approaches by every industry to save our wild salmon. The reward is tremendous. Here in the Pacific Northwest, salmon are part of our cultural identity, setting us apart from the rest of the country. If these creatures don’t survive, we lose a bit of who we really are, and we’ll never get it back.

Dave Walsh is director of sustainability at Seattle-based Sellen Construction. Ellen Southard is Puget Sound urban outreach manager for Salmon-Safe.

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